2013-11-21 / News

Heroin Becomes Larger Issue in Mackinac County

By Erich T. Doerr

Street heroin is becoming more readily available in the local area, in part because more crackdowns have stemmed some of the illegal prescription drug abuse, and heroin offers a similar high. It’s being brought in from urban areas.

Straits Area Narcotics Enforcement (SANE) unit commander, Lieutenant Ken Mills, said the change in drug use likely relates to heroin producing effects similar to morphine and OxyContin, both available through prescription. All three drugs are classified as opioid and are equally addictive.

“We’ve noticed an increase [of heroin use] in our area over the last year,” Mr. Mills said.

Mackinac County Sheriff Scott Strait said that the crackdown on illegal pills also shifted many toward heroin as a cheaper alternative. In fact, most police agencies predicted this increase as a possibility and some see this situation as proof the prescription programs are working.

“I think this is cyclical,” Mr. Strait said of the heroin increases.

Heroin is mainly a problem right now in the northern Lower Peninsula, Mr. Mills said, with some moving into the Eastern Upper Peninsula. Michigan State Police Trooper Fred Strich added it is becoming a bigger problem in both Alpena and Gaylord.

“It’s getting closer,” Mr. Strich said. “There is some in the area, but it’s not as prevalent here as in other communities downstate.”

While heroin use is increasing in the area, it is still not being made here. The production remains in southeastern Michigan locations, such as Detroit, with some coming in from as far away as Mexico. The heroin is bought to Michigan and then transported north, with SANE currently working to arrest the larger dealers bringing it up.

“We’ve had some decent success tracking down and arresting those individuals,” Mr. Mills said. “To get the heroin, you have to go to an urban area.”

It takes longer to investigate heroin supply chains, Mr. Mills said, because they are often much longer than those for prescription pills. While pills almost exclusively come from faked prescriptions, stolen property, or legitimate prescription resale, street heroin comes from many obscure sources. Much of heroin’s medical risks are the result of its highly addictive nature.

“Nobody starts using these drugs thinking they will get addicted to it,” Mr. Mills said. “But that becomes the most important thing in your life, chasing that high.”

Adding to the risks of using street heroin is how the drug is often “cut” before sale by diluting it with other substances. This process adds weight to the drug and allows dealers to sell more. The mixed-in substances are often quite dangerous, even before being added. Mr. Mills said one choice is the powerful pain killer fentanyl transmucosal, a cancer drug meant to treat chronic pain that easily causes overdoses.

“It’s some nasty, scary stuff,” Mr. Mills said of the diluted heroin. “You don’t know what you are getting.”

The drug can be smoked, snorted, or injected. Heroin itself may be a powdery or crumbly substance, ranging in color from offwhite to dark brown, according to Narconon International, and some forms can even appear black and sticky.

The drug has many long-term health effects. The National Institute on Drug Abuse said heroin abuse can lead to collapsed veins, heart lining infections, constipation, liver disease, and kidney disease. Street heroin’s contaminants also can build up and clog blood vessels, causing organ damage.

In this area, Mr. Mills said, most of the heroin users are adults between the ages of 20 and 40. It is currently not as big of an issue with teens, but he added it’s often people who got involved with gateway prescription drugs like morphine in their teenage years who move on to heroin when they reach their 20s.

SANE is a seven-county taskforce that includes local, state, county, and border patrol officers. Sheriff Strait said all the departments work closely with SANE and, overall, it is a great collaborative effort for the region. He emphasized that drugs don’t recognize county lines and a regional approach is a good way to a keep a lid on the drug problem.

“Whenever we get a tip, we pass it along,” Mr. Strait said. “We do our best to build cases against those who are distributing it.”

Several steps are taken by the Mackinac County Sheriff’s Office to combat the drug’s spread. All officers have been sent to specialized school where they are taught to recognize the effects of drugs, and two have completed additional specialized training.

Drug testing kits are available for parents from both the Sheriff’s Office and area schools. The purpose is not to provide the sheriff’s office with results, but to provide helpful resources for parents in case of positive results.

“We are trying to attack this from all sides with the resources we have available,” Mr. Strait said.

SANE made a bust during a heroin investigation in Sault Ste. Marie Friday, November 1, seizing heroin, marijuana, cash, a vehicle, and other evidence. A 26-year-old man was arrested on two counts of conspiracy to deliver heroin, one count of delivery of heroin, and one count of maintaining a drug house. It is one of several SANE heroin busts this year, including others in Gaylord and a few roadside cases.

Michigan State Police have also made a few local arrests for possession this year, mainly related to traffic stops. Mr. Strich said the difficulty is in finding it because it is often shipped in small packages and it has no signature scent like marijuana.

“We’re continuing to look for it,” he said. “Officers are attempting to locate any vehicles that might be transporting it over the [Mackinac] Bridge.”

To provide information about drug use in the area, contact SANE by calling (800) 621-8651. Callers may remain anonymous.

While heroin use is up, Mr. Mills said prescription pills remain the area’s largest illegal drug problem. Marijuana use is plentiful, with both illegal dispensaries and legal medical sources providing it. Arrests have been made in both Emmet and Cheboygan counties relating to ecstasy. Methamphetamine was a growing concern until about six months ago, but after a big push against it that began last year, in June 2012, it is now down significantly. Mr. Mills said they have not taken down any meth labs since March.

The charges for being caught with illegal drugs vary. Heroin possession is a felony and usually treated with similar punishments to cocaine. For those convicted, jail time is likely, but it will depend on the judge and prior criminal history. Mr. Mills said the charges for methamphetamine are stricter and almost always involve heavy jail sentences.

In the City of St. Ignace, the police department has not responded to any complaints about heroin recently.

“I haven’t seen any reports on it,” Police Chief Mark Wilk said. “We haven’t had any arrests ourselves.”

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